One Final Resolution for 2017

It’s still early enough in the new year for me to offer one last resolution suggestion for your STEM classroom, in addition to the excellent ones already offered by seventeen of our exemplary STEM Institute teachers in the last post.

But before I get to that resolution, I want to share a story that has been rattling around in my brain for many years.

It comes at the very end of Wind, Sand and Stars, a beautifully written book of essays by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who also wrote the beloved children’s book The Little Prince. The essays recount the author’s adventures and travels as a pilot just prior to World War II. He died in that war.

The Little Prince

The Little Prince

At the very end of the book, Saint-Exupéry tells of an experience he had while visiting the third-class carriages on a European train late one night. Third-class was where the poor rode, those without means. The seats were hard, comfortless. Saint-Exupéry describes those carriages, crowded with hundreds of Polish workers sent home from France, “ … a whole nation returning to its native poverty seemed to sprawl there in a sea of bad dreams,” and reflects, “Looking at them I said to myself that they had lost half their human quality. These people had been knocked about from one end of Europe to the other by the economic currents.” These words seem chillingly relevant today with so many torn from their homelands, living in refugee camps and hoping to build a new life safely away from conflict and privation.

Saint-Exupéry’s reflections finally settle on three of the sleeping Polish travelers:

“I sat down face to face with one couple. Between the man and the woman a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight I saw his face. What an adorable face!

I bent over the smooth brow, over those mildly pouting lips, and I said to myself: This is a musician’s face. This is the child Mozart. This is a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends are not different from this. Protected, sheltered, cultivated, what could not this child become?

When by mutation a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, tend it, foster it. But there is no gardener for men. This little Mozart will be shaped like the rest by the common stamping machine … This little Mozart is condemned.

It is not an impulse to charity that has upset me like this. It is the human race and not that individual that is wounded here, is outraged here. I do not believe in pity.
What torments me tonight is the gardener’s point of view. What torments me is not this poverty to which after all a man can accustom himself as easily as to sloth. It is the sight, a little bit in all these men, of Mozart murdered.”

For me, that has always been one of the most powerful images in all of literature: The sight of Mozart murdered.

Children like this are all around us. They are in your classroom. They may have been born in the midst of poverty. They may have bleak prospects because of that happenstance of birth, even shorter lives. But each has promise. That same child, born to advantage, with all the supports advantage can provide, with all the second and third chances, with all the resources and life affirming experiences, could go on to, in the words of another favorite author of mine, “make new magic in a dusty world.” (Thomas Wolfe)

So here is my suggestion for a final New Year’s resolution: You be the one to see and rescue those Mozarts … for their sake and for ours. Be a gardener of human beings.

Time is one of their most precious possessions. Once a moment is gone, it’s gone forever. For their sake, use their time wisely. Make every moment they spend in your classroom count.

Make Their Time in Your Classroom Count!

Make Their Time in Your Classroom Count!

For many children, and particularly those living in poverty, education is their one chance to develop their gifts, talents, and passions. Be that teacher who respects them enough to challenge them, to demand their best, while supporting them to express it. That means do them the courtesy of planning your lessons thoughtfully, diligently; don’t waste time in transitions; find out what makes each of your students unique, and use that knowledge to hook them into learning. Don’t underestimate what they can do. Don’t baby them. Teach them the good hard stuff. Above all, don’t waste their time with activities that are time fillers, things that are easy or convenient for you to teach, rather than the real meat of learning for them. Challenge yourself as you challenge them. Go that extra mile.

Years ago, when I was a young teacher, some of us would go out after school to have a beer and talk about our day. Sometimes the subject of planning for the next day would come up, and, I’m ashamed to say, we would joke about having our students “write about the environment,” meaning have them do some decontextualized work that would keep them busy and fill the time, so that we wouldn’t have to plan anything substantive. It was a joke. I never actually did that. But, I sometimes think some of what we teachers do with students is the equivalent of just having them “write about the environment.” Maybe it’s “show a video.” Or “do a word search” or “fill out this worksheet.” It may have some value, but it’s a very modest value. And, in any case, it isn’t real and we know it. So do they.

Finally, recognize that STEM, in particular, offers tremendous future opportunities for a good life for your students, a secure future. That’s where 21st century jobs will be most abundant; at least the jobs that will pay well and provide meaningful work. When you are exciting your students about the world around them, the possibilities and challenges, the problems needing to be solved, when you are engaging them in the real stuff of science and engineering, you are opening a path for them toward that positive future.

So please be that gardener who nurtures these children and allows them to flourish, despite having emerged in poor circumstances. Like the Little Prince’s rose, your students have the capacity to blossom for you, but it will take your commitment to them for that to happen, your commitment and your resolve.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.


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Seventeen Resolutions for Teaching STEM in 2017

Earlier in the month I emailed some of the great teacher participants in the Golden Apple STEM Institute partnership schools, asking them to reflect on 2016 and share one New Year’s Resolution they have for STEM in 2017. What follows are a selection of those resolutions. Maybe they will spark some ideas about what you might want to do in your own STEM classroom in 2017.

Several teachers responded with very specific goals, often focusing on particular content areas they want to work on or, given that NGSS is still relatively new, on NGSS implementation itself.

“My new year’s resolution is that I want to continue to create new science units that align with the NGSS standards.” Keniesha Charleston, 2nd grade, Murray Elementary

Kenosha Charleston with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

Keniesha Charleston (left) with Murray Elementary Colleague Arleta Ingram.

“I would like to do at least one Science and Math integrated lesson with my teaching partner a quarter that combines the skills we are teaching in Math and Science.“ Jill Ryan, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

“One of my aspirations this year is to collaborate with the kindergarten teachers to enhance their unit on the study of butterflies. We will develop a unit where students will research the life cycle of a butterfly and apply that new knowledge to create a habitat that would best sustain the life of the butterfly through each stage of its life cycle.” Amanda Conway, STEM Coordinator, Pershing Elementary

“My resolution for next year is to try to come up with at least one new activity or performance assessment that will incorporate NGSS and STEM in my classroom and to keep the students engaged with inquiry and problem solving.” Mike Albro, 7th – 8th Science, Byrne Elementary

For some teachers, 2017 will offer opportunities for integrating the STEM subjects with the arts, thereby moving toward STEAM-based experiences for their students.

” For my New Year resolution, I would like to include more art projects into my curriculum, turning my STEM classroom into a STEAM classroom. As Einstein said, ’Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ I believe I can develop my students’ imaginations in a greater and more deliberate way by adding art to the projects they do in my class.” Joe Estela, Upper Grades Science, Nightingale Elementary

“My resolution for 2017 is all about my dream for an event/unit with my middle school students in February. It is called STEAMPunk (Science, Theatre, Entertainment, Arts, Music, Powerful, United, Next Generation, Kids). I developed a unit that will connect an experiment design project with a music, visual arts, or theatre piece that is created by the student to show off the new knowledge learned from the science experiment as well as new knowledge about that discipline of art. Please come if you are available on February 1, 2017, during the day of course. I am inviting everyone out to listen, watch, learn and enjoy art our middle schoolers create. This is an overwhelming feat that has taken collaboration and patience between students, art teachers, and myself. Give everything you can to a dream. Communicate it, plan it, reflect on it, and do the work in order to make sure it comes true.” Kelly Harris Preston, 8th grade Science, Brentano Elementary

Since the advent of the Next Generation Science Standards, Engineering is a new element in the science classroom, so it’s not surprising that a number of these great teachers will be focusing on incorporating more engineering activities into their instructional plans.

“For the New Year, I will focus more on engaging my students in the Engineering Design component of NGSS.” Anh Hoang, 2nd grade, Murray Language Academy

Ahn Hoanh of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

Ahn Hoang of Murray Language Academy at the Intro to Inquiry Summer Program

“My STEM Resolution for 2017 is to align an engaging engineering lab for each of the Holidays that occur during the school calendar year. Combining festive themes with critical problem solving skills is a WIN-WIN! My classroom engineers ‘win’ because they think they are ‘getting out of class’ with our holiday themed project/activity. And I WIN, because I know they are being exposed to multiple engineering practices. Cara West, 6th grade, Durkin Park Elementary

Several teachers couldn’t limit themselves to just one STEM Resolution. In their lists, they reveal thoughtful, concrete plans, a blueprint for transforming their STEM classrooms in the coming year.

“I want to
• Continue to convince students they can be good in science and math by implementing interesting, rigorous, hands on STEM activities. (STEMscopes is aligned with NGSS).
• Take students to more real world workplaces to experience how STEM is integrated.
• Have students sign up for this weekly newsletter I just found called STEM Jobs.” (VERY COOL, BTW!)
Ain Muhammad, STEM Coordinator, Wentworth STEM Academy

“My New Year’s Resolutions are to

• Contact all Chicago Museums and have them support me as I create Inquiry-Based projects in my classrooms. (I did have a difficult time thinking about an inquiry-based project as I worked on the Food Chain and Food Webs. Having the support of the Museum of Science and Industry, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum will help me create an exciting curriculum for my students.)
• Increase parental involvement in and outside the classroom to promote the STEM curriculum. (I need parents to come into the classroom to provide adult supervision as students are actively engaged in their investigations. I also need them to continue fostering the children’s natural curiosity at home in the field of science and technology.)
• Start collecting my science materials for my future projects.
• Make ALL my students enjoy SCIENCE through the use of inquiry-based lessons. (I wish I had been taught Science using STEM and inquiry. It would have made a WORLD OF DIFFERENCE!!!!)” Maria Soto, 2nd grade, Washington Elementary

Teaching STEM is not always the easiest job in the world, particularly given the neglect of science education over the past decades and the compartmentalization of subjects begging to be integrated. But some teachers say with absolute determination, “Bring it on!”

“I will dedicate this new year to finding exciting and relevant ways to teach and engage my students, while always keeping an open mind to refining or restructuring what has already been taught.” Jake Pagan, 6th grade, Morrill Elementary

Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher, Jake Pagan

Jake Pagan, Morrill Elementary Sixth Grade Teacher

“For the new year, I would like to try to get my grade level team more excited about science by planning hands-on team assignments — maybe, even a grade level competition.” Stacy Gibson, 1st grade, Tonti Elementary

“This New Year I want to embrace the fact that students want to learn about things I am not supposed to teach in 3rd grade. As we immerse students into inquiry, some questions veer from my original objectives but are such high quality questions I want to find ways to support their investigations that may be ‘off topic.’ I know this requires increased flexibility but starting in January, I am up for the challenge!” Brittany Williams, 3rd grade, Brentano

Third Grade Teacher Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary

Brittany Williams, Brentano Elementary Third Grade Teacher

In other words,

“Think STEM and Persevere!” Chanel Simpson, Drake Elementary

The final four resolutions are more global and reflect the powerful human connection between our lives and our teaching and the grit and optimism that it takes to thrive in today’s classrooms. They move outside an individual classroom, pointing to the wider world beyond and to the future.

“My STEM resolution for 2017 is to have it be the vehicle to make more students believe and know they can change the world with just their mind.” Letitia Dennis, 8th grade, Gillespie Technology Magnet School

“As I reflect on this year, I think I look forward to the growth in rich, engaging, and deep discussions my students will have in connection to STEM. I hope in this school year and in the years to come, I will be able to support and inspire my students to think, question, wonder, and hold meaningful discussions about science in ways that others may not have thought before.” Winnie Ho, STEM Coordinator, Everett Elementary

“My resolution is to emphasize how important it is to teach with a STEM focus. It not only serves as a means for approaching math and science content, but also presents the opportunity to introduce critical global challenges into the consciousness of future generations that will feel the impact at a much greater level than we do.” William Campillo, STEM Coordinator, Hernandez Math and Science Academy

“My New Year’s resolution for 2017 is to focus on what I love most, myself, my family, my friends, and of course, science! As an administrator, I am going to go back to my roots as a science teacher, coach, and coordinator to make an impact in our school. 2017 will be a GREAT YEAR!!!” Michelle Smith, Assistant Principal, Clissold Elementary

With all of this intelligence, creativity, and energy directed at improving STEM instruction just in this small sampling of classrooms, 2017 will indeed be a GREAT YEAR!!! … most especially for the students of these awesome teachers. I want to thank each of them for sharing their STEM resolutions.

And if you happen to be based in a Chicago Metro area school, why not consider exploring a partnership with Golden Apple STEM Institute as one of your resolutions for 2017?

Happy New Year!!

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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TGISF … Happy Science Friday!

Earlier this year I reviewed The War on Science by Shaun Otto. While the author spends most of the book recounting how corporations, making common cause with religious groups and supported by a corporate media that has come to believe that being “fair and balanced” means giving equal weight to the settled science on such issues as anthropomorphic climate change and patently false opinions, Otto also reserves some of the blame for the public’s distance from science to the scientists themselves. Scientists, he contends, have not done a very good job of communicating with the public, both about the nature of their work and about their findings.

Enter Science Friday, as one means by which that dynamic is changing.

images-1On this last Friday of 2016 and just in case you haven’t stumbled on it yet, it seems particularly appropriate to spotlight this great resource for teachers, students, and the general public, and a vehicle by which scientists can share their work beyond academia. Science Friday airs every Friday on National Public Radio (NPR) from 2 P.M. – 4 P.M. Eastern Time, and you can also subscribe to podcasts or go to their website to listen to previous shows.

Science Friday, which boasts 1.7 million public radio listeners per week, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016. For 25 years, Ira Flatow and the Science Friday staff “have been devoted to helping people understand the world around them, and to making learning fun for everyone.”

In 1991, Ira Flatow, a young journalist whose initial forays into science reporting were stories about the first Earth Day in 1970, brought the idea for Science Friday to NPR as “a weekly conversation with researchers who discuss their discoveries in depth.” The show broke new ground as the first talk show dedicated solely to science. Now, as then, Flatow interviews scientists, mathematicians, inventors, technology innovators, and other researchers, “giving them the time they need to explain their discoveries and inventions. Over the years, Ira has spoken with some of the most celebrated thinkers and doers in the world of science, including Carl Sagan, Jane Goodall, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sylvia Earle, Oliver Sacks, Richard Leakey, and many more.”

Ira Flatow, host of IPR's Science Friday, discusses communicating science in his keynote address.

Ira Flatow, host of NPR’s Science Friday, discusses communicating science in his keynote address for the 50th Anniversary of NIH Environmental Health Research, November 1, 2016.

Flattow has written three books that popularize topics in science and technology: Rainbows, Curveballs, and Other Wonders of the Natural World Explained, They All Laughed… From Light Bulbs to Lasers: The Fascinating Stories Behind the Great Inventions That Have Changed Our Lives, and Present at the Future: From Evolution to Nanotechnology, Candid and Controversial Conversations on Science and Nature.

For a taste of Science Friday programming, give this conversation a listen — “How Much Math Should Everyone Know? (Show Your Work.)

I also love their science year in review and their science books of the year recommendations.

More recently, Science Friday has expanded to include opportunities and resources for participation and education. You can, for example, take a virtual field trip to explore the Columns of the Giants in California, complete with opportunities to collect evidence and apply your geological skills to other sites around the world.

And educators are offered free STEM activities and resources developed by the Science Friday Educator Collaborative, a group of six creative and highly accomplished teachers from around the country. “Starting in the spring of 2016, educators in the collaborative worked with one another and with Science Friday’s staff to create ready-to-use educational resources, all of which were inspired by the work of scientists and engineers featured in Science Friday media. The result is a collection of challenging and fun STEM resources for a variety of educational settings. And like all of the resources we share at Science Friday, they’re totally free and don’t require expensive materials to implement, so use as many as you’d like, and share them with your colleagues and friends.

Here are some of the ideas that these talented teachers developed:

  • Backpacking into the Columns of the Giants to create an immersive virtual field trip;
  • Drenching Colocasia plants to demonstrate hydrophobicity in nature;
  • Painting watercolors to bring climate change data to life;
  • Planting thermometers in a school parking lot to gather data on the urban heat island effect;
  • Building kites to visualize and demonstrate Newton’s Second Law; and,
  • Creating scale models of mud cores to simulate a timeline of tropical cyclones and hurricanes.

As you will see, each activity is unique. But they’re all designed to develop students’ critical thinking skills and encourage scientific exploration.”

Applications are now open, due Sunday, January 8, 2017, by 11:59 p.m. EST, for the 2017 Science Friday Educator Collaborative. You can learn more about that opportunity here.

Educators, you can sign up here to receive a monthly newsletter with free experiments and lesson ideas.

You might also be interested in the Science Friday weekly newsletter. It will let you stay up to date on all the fascinating science topics they’ll be covering on the program. You can sign up here to receive it.

In addition to being fascinating to listen to each week, Science Friday offers wonderful opportunities to build your science content knowledge in a fun way. They say, “We make science an ‘action’ verb.” But what I find particularly impressive is the fact that children as young as six can become addicted to the show. A mom recently tweeted “@scifri podcast is amazing. My 6 yo has binge listened to 4 hours of it. He loves it.” Why not introduce your students to Science Friday? Who knows, it just might inspire them to consider a STEM career. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

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Blind Cavefish and You … Who Knew?

If you were a grown up in the years between 1975 and 1988, you might remember the famous (or infamous) Golden Fleece Award issued monthly by Senator William Proxmire (D – WI) to government funded projects and research that he deemed a waste of the taxpayers’ money. Rather than being the highly sought after prize bestowing authority and kingship of Greek mythology, Proxmire’s “Golden Fleece,” was associated with a fleecing of the public, a.k.a. a boondoggle. In all, Proxmire issued 168 of these “awards” before he retired in 1988. And various organizations and entities have carried forward on a similar vein since Proxmire vacated the scene.

To the average layperson, the Golden Fleece recipients’ projects looked like complete and utter wastes of time and money. We’ve all heard the refrain, sadly even from our Senators and Representatives, “I’m no scientist but …” Followed by something along the lines of “this makes no sense to me, seems utterly ridiculous, and therefore must be bogus.” The key phrase in this is “I’m no scientist,” because what follows is often something that may not make sense to laypeople but does make sense to other scientists. Nonscientists simply don’t have the background knowledge and training to know whether or not a line of research will generate useful and important knowledge. Sometimes the seemingly oddest lines of research do. Examples of that come later.

In fact, the same reasoning underlies climate change denial. Since it’s bitterly cold and snowing where I am (weather, a local phenomenon), the earth clearly can’t be warming (climate, a global phenomenon). Serious problems arise when the “common sense” opinion of a non-scientist is somehow equivalent in credibility to the consensus of multiply degreed climate and related sciences specialists. In what universe does that make sense?

A 2013 Washington Monthly article described Proxmire’s impact as follows:
“Proxmire doled out Golden Fleece awards to dozens of government agencies, including the Department of Justice, the National Institute of Mental Health, and NASA, often successfully stripping funding from their projects in the process. Scientists and their advocates were not amused, saying that Proxmire was presenting the intents of research projects unfairly to make them appear frivolous to a public predisposed to gobble it up, and that the award was a ploy for attention and political gain. While some of the projects he highlighted and stopped truly were stupid, the Golden Fleece Award did more harm than good: it halted legitimate research for political purposes, and worse, engendered widespread suspicion and hostility towards the notion of government spending on science, even when it represents only the tiniest portions of the overall budget.

It is the latter reason that makes those of us who want to love Proxmire for his litany of other accomplishments so uneasy, especially now that the mantle of equating scientific research with government waste has been taken up by the worst parts of the Republican Party, from cranky media obsessives like John McCain to anti-spending zealots like Tom Coburn. Bashing science in this manner became the cool new thing for the right—and it was a Wisconsin progressive who had made it cool!” 

And that brings me to the topic of this post – blind cavefish — and the research currently being done on them.

So there are these fish that live in caves and because there isn’t any light in those caves, the fish don’t need to see, and so they are blind and eyeless. They are also colorless. I mean, of what possible use could that research be?

Yet, scientists who study them have discovered some remarkable adaptations blind cavefish have made in response to their environment. For example, Science Daily reported that the research team led by Nicolas Rohner, Ph.D., of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the species Astyanax mexicanus, a cavefish native to certain areas of Mexico, has “very high body fat levels, are very starvation resistant and have symptoms reminiscent of human diseases such as diabetes and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease,” yet, “the fish remain healthy and don’t have any obvious health problems like we see in humans. …While in humans this condition can lead to tissue scarring, inflammation, cell death, and eventually liver failure, the cavefish with fatty livers didn’t show any of these problems.”

The researchers also found that the cavefish exhibit very high blood glucose levels just after eating and very low levels when food isn’t available. These swings in blood glucose are similar to those experienced by people with untreated type 2 diabetes, though they appear to cause no negative effects in the cavefish. ’We think that like hibernating animals that acquire extra body fat in the fall to survive the winter, the cavefish become insulin resistant as part of their strategy to acquire high body fat levels,” said Rohner. ‘Similarly they likely use higher body fat levels to be more starvation resistant during periods when food isn’t available.’

The researchers identified a genetic mutation as the source of the cavefish’s insulin resistance. ‘It is not a regulatory or seasonal mechanism like in hibernating animals,’ said Rohner. ‘The cavefish are constantly insulin resistant, and that makes the argument even stronger that this is a strategy they are using to gain higher body fat levels. The fish must have also acquired compensatory mechanisms that allow them to stay healthy despite these high fat levels.’”

Scientists believe that further study of these fish might lead to cures for diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and obesity — all this from studying the genetic adaptations of an obscure species of fish.

When you consider that 30 million Americans have diabetes, probably including someone you know, and that $1 in every $3 Medicare dollars is spent on diabetes and $1 in every $5 of healthcare dollars is spent on diabetes, a total of $322 billion per year according to the American Diabetes Association, studying blind cavefish seems like a good investment, whatever the research dollars involved.

All of this makes me wonder if scientists, by simply pursuing their curiosity about the world, don’t often stumble on solutions to seemingly intractable problems that would remain unsolved if those research dollars dried up, withered away by the scorn of the “I’m not a scientist but” crew.

Cases in point, the Washington Monthly article cited above goes on to talk about the Golden Goose Award, created in 2012 by a coalition of various scientific and academic organizations at the urging of a bipartisan group of members of Congress, which intends “to celebrate scientists whose federally funded research seemed odd or obscure but turned out to have a significant, positive impact on society,” citing, for example, John Eng, a VA doctor, who received funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs to study Gila monster venom, which turned out to contain a hormone that is highly effective in treating diabetes, and Wallace Coulter who received funding from the Office of Naval Research and “invented a now-industry-standard way to count blood cells by studying how to improve paint used on Naval ships.” In the process, Coulter engendered “a technological boon with economic impact across major economic sectors like health and manufacturing,” giving American taxpayers ample return on their research investment.

Why is this important now?

We currently face a powerful impetus in America to mock science and defund major research agencies like NASA. It’s the popular thing to do, always good for a laugh. If we continue along these lines, however, the laugh will be on us. We will laugh ourselves straight out of contention as world class innovators and problem solvers in health, the environment, and other essential domains. And lives will be lost unnecessarily.

That is why, teachers, you are essential. You can activate the innate curiosity of your young learners from preschool on and guarantee that it won’t be extinguished before they get to university, where they will by then have the necessary background and interest to be eager and confident enough to pursue the advanced study necessary to find answers to the novel, mind-bending questions that lead to scientific breakthroughs, breakthroughs which ultimately benefit all of humankind. Keep science alive in your classroom to keep curiosity and scientific thinking alive in your students!

The first step toward both is to keep science alive in your own life, sparking your own sense of wonder at the diversity of life’s many solutions to the challenges of living on planet Earth.

To that end, you might enjoy this TED talk by ichthyologist Prosanta Chakrabarty on what we can learn from blind cavefish about the geology of the planet and the biology of how we see.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple STEM Institute here.

Several other articles not cited in this post might be of interest to you:–And-To–Science/


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The Care and Feeding of Science Fair Judges: It’s in the details …

Organizing a science fair is no small undertaking, particularly given the many demands on a teacher’s time. I like blogging about science fairs in the hope that sharing good practices across schools can help all of us create a better experience for students without having to reinvent the wheel school by school. What one school/teacher does well may not have occurred to another school/teacher to do. Perhaps you’ll find something helpful in the ideas below that you can incorporate in your own science fair planning.

Earlier this month I served as a science fair judge at Emiliano Zapata Academy in Chicago. Zapata’s science fair team did a great job of reaching out in advance, sending an email to prospective judges over a month before the event.

“It’s that time of year again! We need your help in attaining Science Fair judges. The Science Fair will be on Tuesday, December 6, 2016 from 8:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. We will be providing our judges with breakfast and a lunch that will not disappoint. Attached is a letter for the judges. Please feel free to forward this email to someone who might be interested in judging. College students are welcomed.

Thank you in advance.”

Attached to the email was a more formal letter. The letter reassured us that “everything you need to know will be easily explained to you during breakfast before you hear student presentations.”

Formal Invitation Letter to Judge the Zapata Science Fair

Formal Invitation Letter to Judge the Zapata Science Fair

To help insure that all judges showed up, the organizers also sent several reminders during the lead up to December 6.

That morning, judges convened in the library, where breakfast was indeed served. Over coffee and pastries, we were given a presentation about the learning needs and styles of the adolescent children whose projects we would be judging, a primer on the science processes (scientific method) that the students were using in developing their projects, and a review of the rubric we would be using to judge. And, more importantly, we were provided with a list of questions we were encouraged to engage students in answering to reflect on their work. The students of Eliza Ramirez, 8th grade science teacher, had developed the questions with her, based on previous science fair experiences and the questions that judges had asked them that helped them think more deeply about their work.

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016
Emiliano Zapata Academy Gym

This is a list of questions for visitors to ask participants. If there are other questions you want to ask, please do! Our participants are ready to share about their research and experiment.

What is your project about?
Why did you choose this project?
Where did you get the materials for your experiment?
How much time did each part of the process take you?
Who helped you with your experiment? How did they help?
What part of this project made you feel like a scientist?
What was a fun part of doing this project?
What was the hardest part of doing this project? What was the easiest part?
How did the project add to your knowledge of science?
What did you learn from this project?
How did your research influence your experiment?
Was there anything that went wrong in your project? How did you adjust or fix the problem?
What ideas for other projects can you get from this one?
If you were to do this project again, what would you change? Why?
How did you prepare to present?

Zapata put on a well-organized Science Fair. Students had been working on projects since the first month of school, and that showed in the quality of their work. All students had papers, and judges had the opportunity to read the papers in advance of hearing the students present. And the breakfast and lunch definitely did not disappoint.

Eliza Ramirez, Zapata Science Teacher and Co-Organizer of the Science Fair

Eliza Ramirez, Zapata Science Teacher and Co-Organizer of the Science Fair

These are my takeaways from my experience at Zapata:

The adults at Zapata honored their students and supported their success by being thoughtful in their own planning and organization. They took the enterprise seriously enough to not make a last minute affair of it, an all too common occurrence. They took the time to reach out well in advance of the Science Fair to secure judges, and they set aside time and created a presentation expressly for the judges to make sure that we too approached the task in a thoughtful and prepared manner. No surprise, Zapata is designated a Level 1+ school by CPS. It’s in the details …

And here is something to consider: If the experience is a good one for judges, they are more likely to agree to come back in subsequent years, making it easier for you to secure experienced judges in the future.

Kudos to teacher-organizers Carmen Reyes and Eliza Ramirez and to principal Ruth Garcia for organizing and hosting an exemplary Science Fair. And kudos to their students for doing a great job on their projects!

If asked, I will definitely be back next year.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Do What You Love: A Science Fair Judge’s Request

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” Steve Jobs

I judge a lot of elementary school science fairs, and it’s that time of year again. If you’ve read my earlier blog posts on the topic, you know that I have issues with some of the practices that these events reflect, and I’ve offered suggestions for improving the quality of the experience for both students and teachers … oh, and judges as well.

It is dispiriting to talk with a student who has no genuine interest in her subject … with a student who picked his experiment from a list provided by the teacher or found on the internet … a topic that seemed doable, if not terribly interesting or relevant to the student.

And so we both slog through the presentation. The student dutifully reads or recites the requisite parts … purpose, hypothesis, materials, procedure, conclusion and proffers the requisite research paper, complete with abstract, safety sheet (yes, even for paper towels and water), and a “review of literature,” these days, most generally internet websites, responds without much enthusiasm to questions … and often without much deep knowledge about the science content the “experiment” centered on, necessitating a quick scurry through cards or paper. The quality of the board is duly noted on the score sheet … is it attractive, does it contain all the requisite parts, is it free of spelling and other errors? I know this is all good, but for however much students may benefit from learning the process of conducting an experiment (if indeed it was one) and presenting their learning to adults, something is often missing — genuine excitement, an opportunity to have done something meaningful to the student. And I often feel sad as I record my scores.

So what a revelation it was to encounter two students this past Friday at the Byrne Elementary School Science Fair who were genuinely passionate about their projects, who were deeply and personally engaged, who really cared. What they studied may not change the world, but it definitely changed me. And I suspect it changed them, as well, by deepening their understanding of something they already loved.

Meet 8th graders Jason Yakes and Juliana Schuch.

jason julianna

Jason’s project was “To Cork or Not to Cork?” or “How Does the Amount of Cork in a Baseball Bat Affect the Distance a Baseball Will Travel?” (What a lovely Wheel of Inquiry investigation!) Juliana’s was “What’s Your Vocal Range?” And here’s what made them different than so many other students whose projects I’ve judged. Jason and Juliana each have a deeply personal connection, a passion for the topic they chose to investigate. And that personal connection lit them up when they presented. They didn’t have to read from cards or fumble the science. They knew it. They could simply talk about what they did, responding easily to questions, offering additional information that wasn’t on the boards but that was part of their mental files on their topic.

Here’s why:

Jason tells me up front that he has loved baseball his entire life, well, going back six years. I inwardly sigh. He was curious to know why corked bats were banned and assumed that it must be because they provided an unfair advantage to a batter. He figured that corking a bat must make the ball go further. So he built a pendulum-based apparatus that would allow him to test the distance a ball would go after being hit by an uncorked bat, one with two inches of corking, and one with four inches of corking in the “sweet spot.” To “remove himself from the experiment,” the apparatus included a headboard, so that Jason would lift the bat to exactly that height for each trial and simply drop it without applying any “oomph” that could skew the results. As it turned out, his hypothesis was wrong. Corked bats didn’t make the ball go further. But that opened up the conversation about why a player like Sammy Sosa would use one. (Trust me, I had no idea that a corked bat had exploded thereby revealing Sosa’s deceit … I am a complete sports illiterate.) Jason volunteered additional information and speculation about the attraction of corking. The entire time, he was animated, excited about his subject, and welcomed conversation about it. There was nothing rote or rehearsed or routine about this exchange.

Here is the point: I asked Jason what he wanted to do in the future. He said, “ I want to play baseball.” He has a Plan B … he is interested in the law, in arguing cases. I suspect he will be great at either.

Juliana’s project was based on her own interest in vocal range. Knowing that gender influences vocal range, she wondered about the difference that age makes in vocal range, so she tested ten children and ten adults to see what their high note is and what their low note is. She even tests her results using an app that automatically registers range. The science is impeccable. She tells me that as we age it becomes more difficult to hit the higher notes. Children can indeed outdo adults in that, as her data demonstrates. She tells me the physiology behind this. I cringe, knowing she is telling a hard truth. We laugh. She reassures me not to worry. I tell her about Yma Sumac, “who recorded an extraordinarily wide vocal range of 5 octaves, 3 notes and a semitone ranging from E2 to B♭7. In one live recording of “Chuncho,” she sings a range of over four and a half octaves, from B2 to F♯7. She was able to sing notes in the low baritone register as well as notes above the range of an ordinary soprano and notes in the whistle register.” Juliana says she will check out YouTube.

Here is the point: Juliana is a singer. She tells me that she wants to be on The Voice and that if she is, she’ll let me know. I have every confidence that she will be. I ask her about her vocal range. She knows it, has tested it. But when I ask her to sing she demurs because her sustained high notes would be too loud in the room. Another time. But singing is her passion. And she loves singing Adele songs!

Juliana’s research paper concludes, “I am honestly very proud of these results because it was a fun experience and my hypothesis was correct, making it a win-win deal.”

Now that’s something I would wish for every student doing a science fair project … a sense of pride, of ownership, a feeling that doing the experiment was fun, that it was a win-win deal.

In a speech to the National Education Summit on High Schools, February 26, 2005, Bill Gates said “America’s high schools are obsolete.” I doubt he would disagree if I suggested the same is true of America’s elementary schools. Gates offered a new 3 R’s for educators.

• The first R is Rigor – making sure all students are given a challenging curriculum that prepares them for college or work;
• The second R is Relevance – making sure kids have courses and projects that clearly relate to their lives and their goals;
• The third R is Relationships – making sure kids have a number of adults who know them, look out for them, and push them to achieve.

I would turn that on its head a bit. I think the first is Relationships.

Teachers, know your students well enough to know what they are passionate about. Build those relationships and tap that knowledge to help them find a project that advances their own interests and aspirations. Jason loves baseball. Juliana loves singing. What does Tanesha love? What does Rodolfo love? And Science Buddies has a tool, the Topic Selection Wizard, that can help students zero in on projects they would be genuinely interested in doing.

Relationships can help you connect the learning of individual students to things that are personally relevant to them — seriously no more experiments on “which paper towel is more absorbent?” There isn’t a 12 year old alive who cares about that. I certainly don’t.

And that personal relevance will drive rigor such that students will know and say so much more about their projects than can ever be captured on a three-fold board.

In a way, science fairs are microcosms of life. Some people go through life going through the motions, slogging away at a job without much enthusiasm. Imagine the energy we would unleash if we helped students discover what they love and release them to learn more about it and maybe continue pursuing that love until it becomes … their life.

~ Penny

p.s. We science fair judges will thank you. And my thanks to teacher Mike Albro and principal Chantel Angeletti of Byrne Elementary for a great experience! Special kudos to Mary Beth Corbin for assisting Byrne sixth grade students in creating such awesome projects. Byrne was a STEM Institute partner school from 2010 – 2012.

Learn more about STEM Institute here.

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Filed under Byrne Elementary, Science Buddies, science fair, science fair projects, Uncategorized, Wheel of Inquiry

In the beginning …

“All young children have the intellectual capability to learn science. Even when they enter school, young children have rich knowledge of the natural world, demonstrate causal reasoning, and are able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge. In other words, children come to school with the cognitive capacity to engage in serious ways with the enterprise of science.”


“Very little if anything is expected to be accomplished in science during the K-2 years in most U.S. elementary school classrooms, where the overwhelming focus is on developing early literacy and numeracy. Most science activities are short (one lesson long) rather than coherent units.”

Both quotations are from the landmark 2007 report by the National Research Council of The National Academies, Taking Science to School: Learning and Teaching Science Grades K – 8. (Free download here.)

A Good Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

An Important Introduction to Early Elementary Science Education

It would seem from reading these two statements, that if we aren’t teaching very much science to young children in our schools, we are missing a hugely significant opportunity to build on their inherent interest in the world around them and the preliminary sense they’ve already made of it. After all, when the students are ready, isn’t the teacher supposed to appear? Cue the crickets.

Why is there such a profound disconnect in our schools between the reality of millions of science curious students who enter the school as budding little scientists and the actuality of nominal and often poor quality science instruction those children too often receive during those critical primary years? What does science look like at the beginning of schooling? What should it look like?

There’s a hint of an answer in the second quotation. Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, U. S. schools have marginalized non-tested subjects, feeling the need to prove that their students are literate and numerate more than they feel the need to educate children in other subject areas children might find engaging and relevant to their lives, subjects like science, the arts, and social studies.

To begin to address these questions, I want to focus on what I saw in a kindergarten classroom I recently visited.

In Raquel Martinez’s Kindergarten classroom at Washington Elementary in Chicago, where students are learning about weather in a coherent ongoing unit, I see and hear children engaging in science and engineering practices.

Their teacher says to them, “You were good observers, good explorers yesterday.” She asks them, “Do you think the sun comes out everyday? Let’s take some time to think. (wait time) Now, turn to your partner. This is a tough question. You have to know why. ‘Does the sun come out everyday?’”

In many ways, it’s a subtle question Ms. Martinez poses to get her students thinking about what they have observed during their young lives. Ultimately, this lesson will lead children to an understanding of why the sun appears to come out each day — the result of the earth rotating on its axis as it revolves around the sun. But first she must tap their prior experience of the phenomenon.

I saw children keeping their observations in science notebooks.

I saw data gathered as part of the “Daily Weather Watch” and added to the weather observation chart, a bar graph, indicating whether the day is sunny, cloudy, or rainy.

Little Alana, “today’s weather watcher,” reports to her classmates after observing at the window, “It’s sunny.” By the next time I visit Washington, the “weather watcher” is being called “today’s meteorologist.”

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

A Budding Meteorologist Gathers Data Through Observation

Children color flash cards with the following words and images on them: Windy, Cloudy, Rainy, Stormy, Sunny, and Snowy. They cut them out with scissors, great for developing fine motor skills, and place them in a little pocket in their science notebooks. They have the words, “A scientists knows … in our world” before their eyes as they work.


Keeping A Science Notebook Is Something Scientists Do

There was more. But I hope this captures a sense of what should be happening at the very beginning of every child’s schooling to lay the foundation for all of the science learning that needs to take place over the course of the next twelve years and beyond. Above all, science should not be neglected. Very young children are ripe for learning science because they are inherently curious about their world and eager to understand how it works. And Raquel Martinez is there for them, expertly guiding their science experiences.

But let’s ask another expert.

Tonti Elementary 1st grade teacher and STEM Institute alum Stacy Gibson had this to say about why teaching science in the primary grades is so important:

“I love teaching science so much. First of all, it is so much fun for the kids. I feel a lot of people push science off because it isn’t tested in first grade. I feel that it teaches all the skills that are tested/important to be successful thinkers. In science, students are reading and comprehending what they are reading. We also include math (measurement, graphing, addition/subtraction, etc.) and most importantly working together and critical thinking. Science teaches kids ‘productive struggle.’ Students are working through challenging problems to come to a deeper understanding. It’s about trying things and learning from mistakes.

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Stacy Gibson and Her First Grade Scientists

Planning science units is the hard part. It takes extra time and materials. At our school we don’t have a science curriculum, so we just have to find our own stuff. I spend a lot of time looking things up online and talking with other teachers. Science needs to be hands on, not just watching a video or reading a textbook everyday but instead having kids do the exploring. We used to use FOSS kits, and I loved that because we had all of the materials we needed in one place. After we got the new NGSS standards, our school stopped purchasing FOSS kits. We are still trying different lessons, and some work and some don’t. It is a work in process, and we are learning along with the students.

I do wish everyone saw the importance of science like see it. I wish materials were included when we are buying our math and reading materials every year. I have gotten a ton of great materials from different PDs and workshops, but I would love having ones that are focused on the first grade topics. and Mystery Science have been helpful resources.

It is full time job planning and teaching science, and we have to do it along with all the other subjects. I am always re energized when I see the kids problem solving and working together and how excited they are, and I love working with other teachers who value science and the opportunities to explore teaching science with other adults.”

Stacy Gibson Meeting with her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

Stacy Gibson Meeting with Her Principal, Gerardo Arriago of Tonti Elementary, and Steven Walsh, STEM Institute Coach

By the way, Stacy and her fellow first grade teachers have common planning time, and Stacy helps her colleagues by designing much of the science that she and her colleagues will teach. Both are excellent strategies for building an excellent science program, and Tonti has done a great job of that.

NSTA, the National Science Teachers Association, a leading developer of the Next Generation Science Standards, updated its Position Statement on Early Childhood Science Education in light of the NGSS. It’s well worth reading, if you are looking for support for doing more science in your classroom, an understanding of what that science should look like, and a guide to the kind of professional development that would best foster your own growth as a classroom teacher responsible for developing science understandings in young children. (By the way, STEM Institute meets all of the criteria.)

But to give you a sense of the critical elements NSTA recommends, here is an excerpt:

NSTA recommends that teachers and other education providers who support children’s learning in any early childhood setting should
• recognize the value and importance of nurturing young children’s curiosity and provide experiences in the early years that focus on the content and practices of science with an understanding of how these experiences connect to the science content defined in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) (NGSS Lead States 2013);
• understand that science experiences are already a part of what young children encounter every day through play and interactions with others, but that teachers and other education providers need to provide a learning environment that encourages children to ask questions, plan investigations, and record and discuss findings;
• tap into, guide, and focus children’s natural interests and abilities through carefully planned open-ended, inquiry-based explorations;
• provide numerous opportunities every day for young children to engage in science inquiry and learning by intentionally designing a rich, positive, and safe environment for exploration and discovery;
• emphasize the learning of science and engineering practices, including asking questions and defining problems; developing and using models; planning and carrying out investigations; analyzing and interpreting data; using mathematics and computational thinking; constructing explanations and designing solutions; engaging in argument from evidence; and obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information (NRC 2012, NGSS Lead States 2013);
• recognize that science provides a purposeful context for developing literacy skills and concepts, including speaking, listening, vocabulary development, and many others; and
recognize that science provides a purposeful context for use of math skills and concepts.

Some good guidance there, as you plan your own science units. You can read the entire position statement here.

~ Penny

You can learn more about STEM Institute here. We are currently recruiting Chicago area schools to join our 2017 cohort. Contact for more information or call 312-477-7522. Looking forward!

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Filed under children as scientists, Early Elementary Science, Taking Science to School, Tonti Elementary School, Uncategorized, Washington Elementary School